I saw a post on Facebook from my friend Steve Morrow was celebrating the release of his movie. At first I didn’t think much of it. But then I realized it wasn’t just a Hallmark Christmas Movie (which are AWESOME to watch, huge guilty pleasure I must admit) it was the blockbuster LA LA Land starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone! Well having never directly spoken to Mr. Morrow I figured it would be a long shot that he’d agree to do an interview about his experiences on the set. I mean, I’m no one and LA LA Land released this past weekend. He clearly would have parties and friends around him to celebrate with. But luckily he agreed and at 1AM my time we conducted an interview by email. For those of you who have not seen the trailer for La La Land, here you go.
1) Over the years sound mixers come up with a set of questions they ask producers when in pre-production for a movie. How does that conversation look when it’s a musical?
When starting out thinking about a musical, the questions are, is this all playback? Will there be live singing? Will we be live recording any instruments, if so how many? I like to pose this specific question to any director on set “When we are watching this movie in the theater what would you like it to sound like”?
2) Now this is a musical with big 1930’s inspired dance scenes. The director has said he wanted to film a lot of these head to toe and in cinemascope. How did that affect the way you approached using the boom? Also what was the average boom length that your operator(s) had to use on set?
Filming in Cinemascope was fantastic for us in the sound dept. The frames tend to be wide but with really good headroom. So booming most of this film was fairly easy. Craig Dollinger (boom operator) has a K-Tek internal cabled boom pole 16 footer. When the big dance numbers came into play, a lot of it was straight playback, so we didn’t need to boom these scenes, although we did use radio mics on the actors during these scenes to capture some natural set sound and the occasional live vocal in the middle of the scene.
3) The production also lasted several months and had nearly 93 location sets and 48 exterior locations. Did you do anything special to your carts or create a special setup for quick company moves?
My cart is typically set up to be able to move quickly. I have worked on features that typically shoot everything on practical location, so you always need to be small and quick to move.
4) Was there ever a time you felt like you were able to setup fully and find a nice spot close to crafty?
I try not to set up next to crafty. I’d eat too much and its typically too busy to be able to concentrate. I was able to find some good hiding spaces on set. The opening scene I had setup infront of the blue truck that had all the drummers inside and for the John Legend concert I was hiding just off camera stage left.
5) Most of the months you guys filmed this was in the middle of the summer in LA. Several times over the summer we had record heat waves. How did you and your team handle the heat waves in regards to placing lavaliers on talent?
It was a hot summer but we were very lucky and didn’t have any extreme heat while we were outside. Craig does a great job laving the actors. He uses a combination of 1 inch superstick and a rycote overcover. This sticks really well to clothing and skin.
6) I suppose the biggest question people will want asked is how much of the singing in the final movie was captured on set and how much had to be dubbed in later? And how did your team handle the fact the piano acts as another character in the scene?
So when it comes to live singing there was a bunch. The “roommates” song and dance was playback except Emma’s lines in the song, that was captured live. Emma singing into the bathroom mirror at the Hollywood Party was live. The 80’s band at the pool party was live vocals. The duet in Ryan’s apt was sung live by both of them. Emma’s “Audition” song was live as well. So as you can see we had a lot of live work. John Legend concert scene vocals were recorded 3 times live, not sure what take was used for the film.
The piano was mostly playback through a speaker behind Ryan. He spent 3 months learning to play the piano and he crushed it. Because the pianos were brought to the various sets they were often out of tune so we recorded them as reference so post could tell what keys he hit if they couldn’t tell. In the end the piano was studio recorded.
7) This movie also is driven in part by live music and jazz bands. Were you able to do any plant mics because of this?
Most of the bands were all re-records. We would always mic the rooms to give the playback tracks a more live sound. We’d hide mics on the instruments when we could so they could bring in and out the tracks as they saw fit in post.
8) Now for the nerdy question. A movie of this scale is very demanding on gear needs. What was the average gear list for the day?
Here’s the basic daily package, assuming its a music day:
2- Sound Devices 970
2- Mackie 1604’s
1- Rednet2 dante converter
1-Protools M-box Pro
1-Sound Devices 422 mixer
various Drum mics
various Brass mics
stereos piano mics
2- MKH 50 mics
2-6 Lectro SM’s
Sanken lavs COS11
12-JBL 12″ powered speakers
1- JBL 18″ powered sub
2400 feet of XLR
I’m sure I’m missing something, but that’ll give you the idea.
9) What was the most demanding scene for gear and what was needed to tackle it?
The John Legend concert scene was our biggest, live vocals and all instruments live recorded (for reference). For this we used 32 tracks of audio to accomplish this scene. Almost every music scene in the film had their unique challenges. The Roommates scenes used 12 speakers and all had to be hidden just off camera as this was filmed in a practical location. The opening scene on the freeway needed the most speakers, one speaker behind every other car on each side of the freeway for the run of the set.
10) Lastly, outside of the normal gear a sound mixer uses, what is one thing you couldn’t do without on the set for La La Land?
The Sound Devices 970’s were the perfect recorders to use as we had a demanding track count daily. besides gear, without my team Craig Dollinger (boom) and Michael Kaleta (utility) I would have been in real trouble. The team is the most important thing to have just right.
All photos are courtesy of Steve Morrow.
About the Author
Andrew Jones is a location sound mixer based in Los Angeles. He started in the TV and Film industry in 2004. You can email him at Andrew@HoldForSound.com